Shiny Happy Flintoff, and outside-in emotions

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Thursday, September 23, 2004

4.00pm IST - Woolmer, Botham and Kapil's four sixes

I'd wagered with a friend that after my last post I'd get at least 20 emails with goofy smilies in them, and it pains me to have to inform you that I have lost that bet. Most correspondents, however, agreed with me on the broad theme that I'd set out, though some disagreed with the specifics.

Matt Merritt pointed out that positivity "was one of the things stressed by Bob Woolmer when he coached Warwickshire to great success in English domestic cricket in the 1990s, and by his club captain, Dermot Reeve. On the evidence so far, I think we might soon see a happier, smilier Pakistan team, with a corresponding upturn in consistency of results." Matt continued:

Another example, to my mind, was in the debate during the 1980s over who was the world's greatest allrounder. Hadlee was the best bowler, Imran probably the most complete allround player, but Botham and Kapil Dev both had a certain magic about them that, in my opinion, was inextricably linked to the fact that they played as though they loved the game and were enjoying every minute of it.

The best example where Kapil Dev was concerned was in 1990 at Lord's when he smashed Eddie Hemmings for four sixes in four balls to save the follow-on. Probably only he or Botham would have considered even trying such a thing (in fact, even in these much more attacking times, I can't think of many players who might have tried it), but he made it look like the obvious thing to do, flashed a few dazzling smiles, and carried on. Probably that's why even people not much interested in cricket (my mum, for example), liked him.

Matt, along with a couple of others, gently chided me for suggesting that Gough is crabby, and endorsed my disclosure of not being too knowledgable about English cricket. Tom Lloyd said that Gough was "from the same mould as Flintoff", and that the first paragraph about Flintoff could "equally apply to Goughie". Matt wrote that "Goughie was often the only player who remained buoyant and upbeat during some very dark times, although he could get a bit snarly with opposition batsmen at times". Hmmm ... well, that must be why I referred to him as crabby, he is more crabby than shiny in my memories of England playing India, but I'm happy to admit that I probably got this wrong. Tom suggested that he might not have been displeased if I'd described Andrew Caddick as crabby, and I just realised that would also be an alliteration. Should I change it on the sly? Nah ...

Matt also said that I was too harsh on Hussain. "He took over as captain with England at a very low ebb," he wrote, "and his tough-minded approach laid all the foundations for the success England are now having. Under different circumstances (if he had had the young players coming through that we have now) I think he might have been every bit as upbeat as Vaughan. Certainly in his new role as a TV commentator over here he is excellent - very shrewd, and often drily funny. I think history will judge him as one of the best England captains, but I don't think he'll mind if the equally excellent Vaughan takes some of the credit that is rightfully his. As he showed with the timing of his retirement earlier this summer, unselfishness was one of his greatest virtues."

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

9.20pm - The joy of cricket

When 2004 is done and dusted, one enduring cricketing image from the year will stand out for me: Andrew Flintoff smiling. Smiling after being out for 99; smiling after being hit on the body by a short ball; smiling after a catch is dropped off his bowling; and smiling after hitting one of those sixes that, in their exuberance, are quite of a piece with that smile of his. Flintoff plays his cricket with a delight that is, like delight always is, infectious. The man enjoys playing; but does his enjoyment help him become a better cricketer? And does it help his team become a better side?

I believe it does. I was reading Malcolm Gladwell's wonderful book, The Tipping Point, recently, and in it he describes a fascinating experiment carried out by the social scientists Gary Wells and Richard Petty. This is how the experiment went, in Gladwell's words:

A large group of students were recruited for what they were told was a market-research study by a company making high-tech headphones. They were each given a headset and told that the company wanted to test to see how well they worked when the listener was in motion - dancing up and down, say, or moving his or her head. All of the students listened to songs by Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles, and then heard a radio editorial arguing that tuition at their university should be raised from its present level of [US]$587 to $750.

A third were told that while they listened to the taped radio editorial they should nod their heads vigorously up and down. The next third were told to shake their heads from side to side. The final third were the control group. They were told to keep their heads still. When they were finished, all the students were given a short questionnaire, asking them questions about the quality of the songs and the effect of the shaking. Slipped in at the end was the question the experimenters really wanted an answer to: "What do you feel would be a appropriate dollar amount for undergraduate tuition per year?"

The students who kept their heads still were unmoved by the editorial. The tuition amount that they guessed was appropriate was $582 - or just about where tuition was already. Those who shook their heads from side to side as they listened to the editorial ... disagreed strongly with the proposed increase. They wanted tuition to fall on average to $467 a year. Those who were told to nod their heads up and down, meanwhile, found the editorial very persuasive. They wanted tuition to rise, on average, to $646.

Thus, the mere act of nodding their heads made the students who did so agree, subliminally, with the advertorial, with the opposite effect on the ones who shook their heads. The physical expression of an emotion actually brought about the emotion itself - even when it began as a meaningless gesture, something they did because they were asked to. Of course, they would all have rationalised it differently, but they allowed their opinions to be shaped not by thinking about the problem, but by acting out a reaction to it that they did not probably feel to begin with.

Interestingly, Gladwell quotes Wells and Petty as concluding that "television advertisements would be most effective if the visual display created repetitive vertical movements of the television viewers' heads (eg, bouncing ball)." My lesson of the day from this: never try to convince someone of something while they are watching a tennis match.

Gladwell, after also discussing how emotions are contagious - when someone smiles at you, you instinctively smile back, don't you? - sums it up beautifully. He writes:

We normally think of the expressions on our face as the reflection of our inner state. I feel happy, so I smile. I feel sad, so I frown. Emotion goes inside-out. Emotional contagion, though, suggests that the opposite is also true. If I can make you smile, I can make you happy. If I can make you frown, I can make you sad. Emotion, in this sense, goes outside-in.

Well, Flintoff makes me smile every time I see him strut his stuff, and you can bet that his team-mates feel the same way. (Another of my favourite players, Adam Gilchrist, also smiles a lot on the field.) There are plenty of social-science studies that demonstrate that our efficiency and productivity are higher when we are happy than when we are sad. Happiness is infectious, and self-reinforcing, and you will often find that the happiest team in the business is the most successful - and that victory and joy do not necessarily come in that order.

We all know that confidence and diffidence can be self-reinforcing. You feel confident, you play better, that gives you more confidence, and so on. (This is why that term "momentum" is used so often in a cricket context.) But what do you do when you are in the middle of a bad run, with the losses piling up, and self-belief getting progressively less? Well, what Wells's and Petty's study, along with many others, indicates is that a happy, confident demeanour could be a useful start to a resurgence. What you show outside, you may well begin to feel inside, and that could, in turn, begin to affect the way you play. (This does not mean, of course, that wandering around with a goofy smile is enough; you also need talent and hard work, along with that positive attitude, and Flintoff and Gilchrist are a delightful confluence of all three.)

I am not very knowledgable about English cricket, but from a distance it seems to me that they have turned a corner in the last couple of years - and the difference in their approach has preceded the upturn in their performances. Stressed-out Nasser Hussain replaced as captain by chilled-out Michael Vaughan, crabby Darren Gough giving way to shiny happy Flintoff. When Flintoff won the ICC One-Day Player of the Year award recently, he thanked Vaughan for allowing him to express himself. With a player like Flintoff in his ranks, who plays cricket with such obvious joy and relish, that is quite the smartest thing that any captain could have done.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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